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The first three chapters are posted on Wattpad and ReadWave.
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The Weight of a Wing
In a world where sources of real magic were rare, anyone used to living and breathing by it was constantly aware of its presence and could easily locate it, even if the magic was several kilometers away. In reverse, its absence was just as poignant, a red flag, too bright to be ignored because it had to hurt.
With the spell working, he saw her in his head, the beautiful brunette with dark eyes, long dark hair, and even longer legs, sitting in that booth inside the bar, quietly sipping on her drink and watching the agitated conversation going on around her. She had a calm demeanor while her body screamed for a spark of magic. It was a craving so intense, he could feel it over two corridors and through four sets of walls, her pain resonating inside him like a black hole.
In vain, he told himself he was doing her a favor, but it was not the case—nothing good could come out of this for her. He was doing this for selfish reasons, and she happened to be caught in the middle of it. A mission… That’s what she was, only she wasn’t like any other mission. The more he thought about it, about her, the more he hated what had been done to her and what was likely to happen if he followed his orders. Sometimes he hated his job. When he was done with her, she would hate him, too.
He was so screwed.
* * *
“You people are ruining our city,” Cassie said for the thousandth time.
Alise glanced at her friend seated next to her at the table, fully engrossed in the debate on the pros and cons of building a modern downtown in the city. It happened every time Cassie dropped by to whisk her away for some retail therapy. Since the summer had started and they were right in the middle of the exam session, Cassie was stressed so they seemed to be doing a lot of shopping lately.
“That park of yours … It’s not a park. It’s a handkerchief!” Cassie shook her honey-colored, shoulder-length curls.
Alise tuned out the rest of the tirade. She knew the lecture by heart. It wasn’t even Cassie’s hometown. The girl had come to study international law at the university—one of the best in the country—but she had adopted it as her own. Cassie would never agree with tearing down the entire park behind the old Culture Palace, conveniently renaming it Palas, and replacing it with office buildings, restaurants, and hotels, with a patch of green in the middle of it all.
As a member of the team in charge of the redesign of the park, Alise saw both sides of the coin. People had to eat, and this business was much bigger than they were. If their small architecture firm hadn’t snatched the contract, it would have been some other company who probably would have done a sloppy job. Alise admired her friend’s determination and dedication to the cause, but she would have to get Cassie away from there soon before the girl started to annoy her colleagues.
Cassie turned to her. “Well, you’re the landscape expert. Tell them!”
Alise blinked, having not paid attention to what they were saying. The skin between her shoulder blades itched, and she had an odd feeling that someone was staring at her. She had to fight the impulse to turn around. Still, from the corner of her eye, she noticed him standing on the other side of the glass wall in the busy gallery. The dark shadow towering over her made her shiver. They had found her. And now they would want to take her away. She didn’t want to go back. Nothing good waited for her on the other side … no happiness, no hope. She was lucky she had escaped alive in the first place.
As a rebellious act, Alise refused to acknowledge the menacing presence, but the silhouette wouldn’t go away.
“Not now,” she hissed under her breath. In fact, she meant not here. They wouldn’t come to pick her up in the middle of a crowded bar, would they? People would freak out, so they had to stay hidden. After all, there were rules.
“Sorry. Did you say something?” Cassie’s soft brown eyes watched Alise with curiosity. “You look pale. Are you all right?”
“I’m fine.” Alise pushed back her chair, wishing to crush the shadow behind her, and got up. “I just need some air.”
“Do you want me to come with you?” Cassie asked, concern in her voice.
“No need. I’ll be fine,” Alise murmured. Grabbing her purse, she walked out of the bar. She heard a faint chuckle as the silhouette behind her dematerialized, but that had only been inside her head because the presence was a projection. No one else had seen it.
She didn’t need a compass to show her the way. Her body felt the magic, which was so rare in these parts, and steered her in the right direction. She crossed the gallery, her high heels clicking on the tiles, and turned around the corner where he was waiting near a closed exit.
For a long moment, they just stared at each other. He was not much different than what she had expected. They hadn’t changed the uniform in recent years. It was the same black leather long coat that hid firm muscles and all kinds of weapons inside—no surprise there. Crossbreeds. They sure made them pretty. And deadly. What a pain.
He was one head taller than her and twice as heavy. She could never match his strength without magic. And all crossbreeds did was fight. Maybe not right now, but soon. It was the reason for their entire existence.
From below short golden locks, quicksilver eyes peered at her intently.
That look made her uncomfortable, even more so than the presence of the magic. His eyes trailed from her face to her curves, wrapped in a short khaki designer dress, down her long legs to her strappy sandals, and then jumped back to her eyes. Everywhere his gaze went, her skin burned. Did he do it on purpose? No one would have dared to look at her like that on the other side. But she was a nobody here, just another face in the crowd. She had no rights.
It meant she also had no responsibilities. She didn’t have to help him or listen to him. By agreeing to meet with him, she was doing him a favor. That thought alone, as crazy as it was, brought a smug smile to her face.
“What do you want?” Alise asked, getting straight to the point.
“I know what you are. You’re a Guardian.” And he was not supposed to be there. She had traveled a long way to get away from anything related to her old life.
“Well, I was going to say I’m Rafe, but if you want to keep things impersonal…” He shrugged, his tone teasing, not caring one way or the other.
She glanced at the ceiling, lacking the patience to put up with his antics. “Again, what do you want?”
His smirk stayed, but his eyes turned serious. “I need a Fairy.”
“I don’t do those things anymore.” She shook her head, her ponytail bouncing on her shoulders. “Go find another one.”
“I’ve searched the entire city,” he said. “There are no other Fairies around. You’ve gone to great lengths to find a place so utterly devoid of magic.”
And she intended to keep it that way. “If you know I’m a Fairy, then you also know I’ve lost my wings. I can’t help you. Ask a Witch. There are plenty around.” Human witches, yes, but not Witches in the way they knew them. Still, Alise couldn’t help enjoying the idea of seeing the Guardian running around the city, trying to find the real deal.
“I can’t go to a Witch with this,” Rafe said.
A Witch would have burned his ass just for daring to request assistance. They were one of the most uncooperative creatures out there and, given their nature, they could hardly be forced into doing something against their will. Alise envied them.
“All I need is a location spell. You can still do that.” He sounded determined, as if he knew.
Their gazes locked as a battle of wills commenced. Alise was about to say no when another man appeared near Rafe. He had come from around the corner, but he had moved so fast, it looked like he had materialized on the spot. He was slimmer, but he had the same gear and was close in height. Under the long brown hair that fell to his shoulders, partially hiding his narrow face, the smoky grey eyes looked restless.
Alise rolled her eyes and muttered, “I should have remembered you traveled in pairs.” Where she came from, people used to say, Careful with those Guardians. One of them is going to betray you sooner or later. She wondered which one it was going to be. She wasn’t anxious to find out.
“How are we doing?” asked the newcomer.
Rafe peered at Alise. “Still negotiating.”
“You didn’t offer anything,” she countered quickly. Physically, they could force her, although it remained to be seen whether they would succeed in making her cast the spell. Legally, however, they had no ground to stand on. After her disgrace, she’d left their realm. She didn’t owe them anything.
“Oh, did I forget to mention who we’re looking for?” Rafe feigned surprise.
His companion shook his head, obviously not in the mood to play Rafe’s cat and mouse game. Or maybe he just didn’t like her.
“It’s Gorem,” the blond Guardian said, his bright eyes fixated on her, waiting for a reaction.
Alise’s jaw clenched. Of course she knew that name. Gorem was the one responsible for her misfortune. “He’s here?”
“All signs point to somewhere in the area.”
Alise went quiet for a moment. She had hoped for and feared this for a long time. Right now, she didn’t know how she felt anymore. She was stunned, frozen inside like the roots of her missing wings. “What will you do with him when you catch him?” When, not if, as Guardians never abandoned their missions.
“Attempt to take him back for proper punishment … kill him if he puts up any resistance,” Rafe said. He must have seen a glimpse of suspicion on her face because he added, “The Council sent us. He’s not protected anymore.”
That was an interesting turn of events. It didn’t help her situation, but it did feel good to know they hunted him like the criminal he was. Death would be too good for him, but it would have to do. The Guardians weren’t famous for their mercy.
“So, are you going to help us?” the other Guardian asked. “Before he disappears again?”
“Where are you staying?”
“At the Horizon Hotel,” Rafe said.
“I’ll be there at midnight.”
The Guardians took off in a hurry … no thanks, no goodbye, nothing. She hadn’t expected anything else, though. This was a business arrangement. Still, once she found herself alone in the corridor, she wondered briefly if she hadn’t imagined the whole thing. But, no, magic withdrawal did not cause hallucinations. What she had feared the most was finally happening and, in the end, one of them would be dead. There was no way around it.
Alise drew in a long breath and thought about the ingredients she needed for the spell. She was not going down without a fight, not after everything she had already lost. Good thing she had brought her purse with her. She could leave right away and get to the market before it closed. She wasn’t going to make it back to the table.
At a quarter to midnight, Alise quietly knocked on the hotel room door. She waited in the narrow corridor, holding onto her shoulder bag, until Rafe opened the door. He looked serious, his blade in hand, but he grinned when he saw her. She didn’t return the smile.
“Ready?” she asked, making a sour face. She had changed into skinny jeans and a light jacket for the occasion, and she couldn’t wait to get it over with.
“Come in. It will only take a minute.” Rafe nodded for her to step into the room. All the lights were on, the room positively glowing. The Guardians liked light. “I told you she’d come,” he said over his shoulder.
She felt Rafe watching her as she looked at the second Guardian. He was running a healing stone over his torn shoulder, the claw marks fading quickly. Apparently, they had been busy.
“This is Vale, by the way,” Rafe said with a smirk.
Vale nodded on his way to the bathroom, clean shirt in hand. The one he wore was unbuttoned and sported several tears and a big bloodstain on one side. He looked fine, though. Not a wound in sight. The muscles danced nicely on his lean torso as he moved.
Alise turned her eyes to Rafe. “Is this going to take long? I didn’t come for a strip show.”
“Does it bother you?” Rafe replied.
It didn’t, but the presence of the magic did. She didn’t want to start bleeding through her clothes, the way it happened on the other side. But maybe she wouldn’t. She had little magic left.
“Done,” Vale announced, emerging from the bathroom, still working on buttoning his shirt.
“Good,” she said while adjusting her bag. It pressed heavily on her shoulder, although there was hardly anything in it besides her wallet, cell phone, and make-up kit. Her grandmother had always said spells were heavy, but that was a different lifetime. “The roof.” She pointed up.
“All right,” Rafe said, not about to argue with a Fairy whose help they needed. She had the upper hand, at least for a little while. He opened the door and gestured for her to go first. Vale grabbed his coat and followed them.
The elevator ride to the top floor was awkward. The small metal box could barely contain the magic dripping off the Guardians. Alise held her breath, trying to distract herself from the war raging inside her body. She felt the magic and needed it, but she couldn’t have it. The magic would bring back the pain. Rafe appeared to be willing to chat, but the look Alise gave him made him keep his mouth shut. Eventually, they walked out, still in one piece.
The restaurant on the roof was popular because of the tall building’s panoramic city views. However, being late and a Wednesday, the restaurant was closed. On one side of the terrace, a small flight of stairs led to a locked door on an elevated platform. The restaurant terrace wouldn’t do for what she had in mind. They had to go all the way up to the top.
Slipping in front of her, Rafe took two steps and touched the tip of his blade to the lock. A blue light seeped off the blade and lingered around the lock and handle for a moment before the door opened with a click. Alise shifted her weight from foot to foot. Anyone could do that. She conveniently forgot she couldn’t do those things anymore.
The Guardians went ahead to investigate the battlefield and take down any enemies. She doubted they would find anyone else up there, but she let them do their job. Meanwhile, she looked for a spot not far from the ledge with a good view all around—the fancy lit façade of the old palace nearby, the busy traffic downtown, the deserted Palas farther down the hill, the river in the distance. She stopped there and waited while the linden-scented, warm breeze played with her hair. Rafe and Vale positioned themselves at a safe distance. The spell she had to cast posed no danger, but they still shouldn’t get in the way.
Alise opened her bag and pulled out a small cloth pouch from which she extracted a handful of dried leaves and herbs. She had spent the majority of the evening looking for them, driving Cassie crazy with her absence. “No pizza was worth so much trouble,” claimed her roommate, unaware that most of the ingredients weren’t meant for the pizza sauce.
With her right hand, Alise spread the leaves around her. Part of the mix was taken away by the breeze, but enough landed on the rooftop. The air filled with a faint scent of basil, thyme, and quince.
“I need something of his.” She held out her hand.
“Yeah, about that…,” Rafe said. Neither of the Guardians made a move.
She should have known. They wouldn’t have come to her if they had it. Bastards.
Throwing them a dark glare, Alise dropped the bag on the ground and shrugged off her jacket, revealing a blue halter top. She gathered her hair on one shoulder and presented her back to Rafe, keeping her head lowered. He seemed to be the most capable of doing it with a steady hand.
From the corner of her eye, she saw Rafe pull out his blade. He moved closer and froze behind her. A moment later, he drew in a sharp breath. To anyone on this side, the two thin, lighting-shaped scars parallel to her spine wouldn’t have looked too bad. But he knew what they meant, what she was missing. Welcome to my nightmare.
As more seconds passed, the scars started to burn. They had to be glowing by now.
“They won’t grow back, you know? What are you waiting for?” she asked.
To her left, Vale looked a little sick to his stomach. This went against everything in the Guardians’ nature. Their whole purpose in life was to protect people, not torture them.
“Just do it…” Vale sighed.
When the tip of the blade touched the scars, Alise clenched her teeth, trying not to let herself be caught up by the memories of Gorem slicing her open and chopping her wings off at the very base. Sometimes, she still felt his fingers digging into her back to make sure no trace of them remained. If there was anything left of him, it had to be inside those wounds that never fully healed and kept bleeding while she was on the other side.
The blade was so sharp, no real pressure needed to be applied. The skin broke in a straight line as it followed the already existing pattern, fresh blood kissing the blade. Rafe let a few drops drip onto the ground, a sudden gust of wind ruffling their hair.
Pretending the pain in her upper back was a minor inconvenience, the way she had plenty of times in the past, Alise brought her hands together and tossed the last ingredient up in the air. The scintillation flew high up on a curved trajectory, heading for the hills to the north of the city where the expensive private residences were located. Gorem would never share a house with commoners.
Why had he crossed over and come to this world? It wasn’t really a question. She knew why. He had come for her, just as he had promised. And, this time, he was determined to kill her.
Big, red fireworks exploded close to the cloud ceiling, lighting up the conical roof of a house hidden between the trees.
“He’s there,” Alise said, pointing towards the building. “And now he knows you’re coming.”
She picked up her jacket and slipped it back on, ignoring the blood that dripped down her back, soaking the waistband of her jeans. Damn, the wounds are going to take forever to heal.
“If you want, you can stop by our room to clean up,” Rafe said. Vale was already leaving the roof.
Alise shook her head. “No need. Just catch the bastard.”
“I brought beer!” Alise said with a cheerfulness she didn’t feel as she entered the apartment. Cassie had a low tolerance to alcohol and tended to act silly when drunk. Two cans were more than enough for a Wednesday night. Actually, it was Thursday already. The clock on the wall showed it was quarter past midnight. They had a full workday ahead of them, so better start rolling. “Is the pizza ready?” she asked as the smell assaulted her nostrils.
“Yes,” Cassie said, putting on an embarrassed smile, and hurried to hide her hands behind her back. The tips of her fingers were green. So were the tips of her ears, for that matter.
“What did you do?” Alise stared at her, too tired to get upset. Besides, it wasn’t the first time it had happened. Her roommate had messed with Alise’s herb collection before.
“I was trying to make a dressing for the pizza,” Cassie said. “You’ll love it.” She kissed her fingertips. “It’s dynamite!”
A smile appeared on Alise’s lips when she saw the girl’s enthusiasm. Oh well. The side effects would wear off by morning. “I’ll go change, and then we can eat.”
She hung her bag on the back of a chair and went to her room. The halter top was ruined, but she tossed it into the laundry basket anyway. While not bleeding profusely, the skin opened with every move she made and would continue to do so for a while, so she put on a large bandage and a loose shirt that wouldn’t cling to her skin and, most importantly, would hide any new stains that might appear on the back of her jeans.
When Alise returned to the living room, Cassie handed her a plate with a hot slice of pizza. “Here.”
The girl popped a can open and filled her glass. Alise thanked her with a smile. Cassie was a convenient roommate who put up with her strange little habits without complaining or asking too many questions, and Alise enjoyed her company. So what if she stuck her fingers in Alise’s herbs once in a while?
“Oh, damn.” Cassie pulled at her navy T-shirt containing a fresh tomato sauce stain. It reminded Alise of another kind of stain, and she looked away while Cassie took another bite of pizza and then ran to the bathroom to clean her shirt.
Lost in thought, Alise slowly chewed on her slice. She didn’t want to lean back and leave some sign of her injury on the couch, so she leaned forward and propped her elbows on her knees instead. A soccer game was on TV, and she muted the sound. She didn’t see the attraction of watching men running after a ball when it would have been easier to make the ball come to them. But Cassie liked watching sports, so she couldn’t discuss the subject openly with the girl since Cassie didn’t know.
She was reaching for the glass when the apartment door nearly came off its hinges, and two bruised and battered Guardians burst in.
“What are you doing here?” She stared at them, shocked by their entrance, while cheese dripped off her pizza and onto her fingers.
“Gorem got away,” Rafe said, breathing heavily.
Alise needed a second to digest the news. She should have expected it. Gorem was too smart to be caught that easily.
“We thought he might come after you—” Rafe said.
“Since you sent us to him,” Vale finished, and moved to the window to glance outside.
“We kind of destroyed his house.” Rafe smiled a feral grin, displaying no remorse. “Are you alone here?”
Cassie chose that exact moment to return. “Oh … hello,” she stammered, startled by the presence of two strangers in her living room.
“I guess not,” Rafe mumbled. “Is she your girlfriend?” He smirked at Alise, but she kept her cool.
“This is Cassie … my roommate,” Alise said. “She owns this place.” She made sure it sounded like a warning not to trash it.
“How convenient,” Rafe mused, looking around the room. “I love plasma TVs.”
Cassie still looked confused, so Alise said, “This is Rafe, and Vale.” She pointed at each Guardian.
“We’re family,” Rafe said. When that earned him a glare from Alise, he added, “Distant family.” It wasn’t that much of a stretch. After all, they all came from a different world.
“Hi. It’s nice to meet you.” Cassie offered her hand to both men, and Alise silently cursed her for being so friendly. “I didn’t know Alise had any family.”
“Well, we didn’t part in such good terms,” Alise muttered. “And they’re not staying.” She gave the Guardians a pointed look.
Cassie missed it. She was too busy staring at the visitors. She had a healthy appreciation for beautiful human forms, although she would have been shocked to discover how far from human these two were.
“Since you’re here, I’m sure you’d like to catch up. Please, take a seat.” Cassie gestured for them to make themselves comfortable on the sofa or in the armchairs surrounding the coffee table. “Would you like some pizza? It’s fresh out of the oven.”
Alise hated her perfect hostess skills. Cassie had the plates ready before they could answer.
“I wouldn’t mind a slice,” Vale said, moving away from the window and coming closer to the table.
Rafe took a seat on the other end of the sofa. “You cook?” His eyes twinkled at Alise.
“She doesn’t. I do.” Cassie smiled. “But she’s great with the dressing.”
“Ah … I see.”
She put a slice of pizza on the plate for him, and the unusual color of her fingers caught his attention. He leaned in towards Alise to ask quietly, “What happened to her fingers?”
“Dressing,” Alise deadpanned.
He let out a muffled chuckle that brought out wrinkles around the corners of his eyes, and he thanked Cassie for the pizza. As she turned to serve Vale, Rafe nodded at him.
Vale got up. “I’d like to wash my hands first.”
“Sure. The bathroom is right over there, second door on the left,” Cassie told him.
Appetite gone, Alise pushed her plate to the side. It looked like the visitors weren’t going to leave any time soon.
Meanwhile Cassie continued to chat as if she had known Rafe for ages. “What happened to you? You look like you’ve been run over by a bus.”
“Yeah. What happened?” Alise mocked him. She wanted to know, but Rafe better not discuss it in front of Cassie. There was a limit to the things she could make the girl ignore before she would start to wonder what was real and what wasn’t.
“We got attacked…” Rafe glanced at Alise before adding, “by some dogs.”
“Oh, but that’s awful!” Cassie brought her hands together. “This city does have a big problem with dogs. There are many strays.” She shook her head.
“Indeed.” He grinned, but the smile didn’t reach his eyes. “Don’t worry. We’re fine.”
“I’m not,” Alise said with a matching grin. She couldn’t care less if the Guardians ended up as dinner for some Werewolf pack. They had brought too much disruption into her life, and she didn’t like it one bit.
“So compassionate, isn’t she?” Rafe winked at Cassie, who looked from one to the other, not sure exactly what was going on.
She didn’t get to answer. An explosion coming from Alise’s room made them jump from their seats. Out of nowhere, a blade appeared in Rafe’s hand as he rushed in the direction of the noise. Dammit!
“No, wait!” Alise tried to stop her, but Cassie had already stepped into the corridor.
The girl stared wide eyed at a giant sponge mass that encompassed the back room, threatening to engulf Rafe as it oozed its way out. The only thing in its way was the Guardian’s determination to cut a path through it in order to get to Vale. Alise caught a glimpse of the once brown, now purple hair matted against the other Guardian’s head. He had somehow ended up right in the middle of that growing thing. What was he doing in her room?
Forgetting about her back, Alise leaned against the wall. The presence of the creature was draining her of what magic she had left, as if it was feeding off her. Maybe it was. She hadn’t been attacked by monsters on this side before. Warily, she waited to see how things were going to turn out. Either way, they would have to run. Even if the Guardians killed it, if she knew Gorem, it wouldn’t be the only monster. She sighed to herself. Now she was going to have to rebuild her wardrobe from scratch. While not poisonous, the monster left behind a disgusting residue that made any object it touched unusable.
With their combined efforts, Rafe managed to pull Vale out, pushing against the monster with his shoulder, then dragging Vale out by the arm. Once Vale was free, Rafe pressed his palm to the monster’s side. A sun-like shape flared on the back of his hand, and the whole thing exploded, dissolving into dust.
Cassie covered her mouth with her hand to prevent a scream from escaping.
“Everyone okay?” Rafe looked back, although the girls hadn’t been in danger. After all, it was only a little monster. The Guardians had battled things much worse than that in their lifetime. Vale wiped slime out of his hair, making a face as if he was about to puke.
“What … What was that?” Cassie stammered.
“That…” Rafe pointed with the tip of his blade towards the inside of the ruined room, “was an expansion monster, also known as a compression monster because it crushes everything that gets in its way. As long as it has a roof over its head, it grows until it fills any available space, and then it explodes.”
“Rafe…,” Vale warned, but Rafe ignored him.
“Any more questions?” Rafe asked.
“Well…” Cassie’s shoulders shook lightly, her lips paler than her face. “What was it doing here?”
“Oh, she didn’t tell you?” Rafe’s sarcastic laugh echoed along the corridor. “It came after her.” He nodded in Alise’s direction.
“Thanks a lot!” Alise glared.
“Rafe!” Vale raised his voice. “We’ve gotta go. We need to get out of here before more show up.”
The urgency in his voice made Cassie anxiously look around. “More?” she whimpered. The small apartment couldn’t take any more monsters, and neither could she.
“It’s all right.” Alise moved to stand by her side and put an arm around the girl’s shoulders. “It’s going to be fine.”
“It will be if we move now,” Rafe said. He glanced at the dark smudge left on the wall where Alise had been standing. “Let’s go. We need to find shelter for the night.”
Ahead of them, Vale walked out the front door, leading the way. Alise gently ushered a shell-shocked Cassie out. Rafe closed the door behind them, but no one bothered to lock it. With these creatures, locks didn’t stand a chance.